Why Nuclear Weapons Are Rather Overrated

Robert Farley

Key point: Nuclear weapons are over-hyped and over-talked about.

Overrated” is a challenging concept.  In sports, a player can be “great” and “overrated” at the same time.  Future Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, for example, is quite clearly a “great” player, well deserving of the first ballot invitation he will likely receive.  However, as virtually all statistically minded aficionados of the game have noted, he is highly overrated (especially on defense) by the baseball press. Similarly, no one doubts that Kobe Bryant is an outstanding basketball player.  However, many doubt that he is quite as good as his fans (or the NBA commentariat) seem to believe.

The five weapons of war listed below are “overrated” in the sense that they occupy a larger space in the defense-security conversation than they really deserve.  Some of them are fantastic, effective systems, while others are not. All of them take up more ink than they should, and (often) distract from more important issues of warfighting and defense contracting.

Nuclear Weapons:

Nuclear weapons have, in an important sense, dominated international diplomacy for the last six decades. What they haven’t dominated is warfare, where they appear to be nearly useless in all configurations.

The United States designed much of its doctrine and force structure around the potential for atomic warfare in the first half of the Cold War.  Carrier aircraft were developed to deliver nukes, and the system of fleet air defense changed dramatically over concerns about tactical nuclear attack.  The Air Force built itself around the idea of a strategic nuclear offensive, deep into the Soviet Union.  The Army expected to deliver (and absorb) huge numbers of tactical nukes in a NATO-Warsaw Pact fight.

But since World War II, the United States has eschewed the use of nuclear weapons, even against capable non-nuclear opponents.  Because of the deep political complexity associated with their employment, the weapons simply have too little battlefield and strategic impact for the US to seriously entertain their use.

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